25. Biology Goes Objective 1870

The 1860s was when life science quietly came of age. It had separated from myth and the church, it had gained a fundamental and intellectually substantial theory well described and ready for testing, and its many components were starting to be measured and analysed. It was a quiet decade for scientists and it gave no great historical catastrophic events. There was a new generation of charismatic life scientists, especially Haeckel and Francis Galton, emerging to lead those advocating measurement and analysis, and more non-scientists such as Samuel Butler and Herbert Spencer taking it upon themselves to consider reforming public opinion. Then, quietly, there came data from new scientific enquiries in the then barely embryonic subjects of genetics, stratigraphy and biometry.

The first of these came from within the church of the Hapsburg Empire at Brno, just north of Vienna. During the 1850s and 60s the monastery there was run by Abott Cyrill Napp who supported the changes in life-style and theology that came with scientific advance.

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He also enjoyed gardening and could see that further social improvements would come from new methods of plant breeding and horticultural techniques. He and his young monk Gregor Mendel had heard about the latest ideas of cell division and some of its consequences for inheritance which led them to the latest techniques of counting and calculating progeny for crosses and they wondered whether they might lead to a better understanding of transmutation.

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As a student in Vienna, Mendel had run up against the old and rigid authorities and had signed a defense of his teacher Franz Unger, a plant physiologist who was threatened with dismissal for supporting revolution. Failing the viva examination Mendel returned to Brno where he devised refinements to their earlier experiments of crossing carefully bred wild peas. Although Mendel himself was none too confident of the real significance of the patterns that emerged from these famous experiments involving crosses of different varieties, he suggested that structural characters such as flower colour and seed shape were inherited by processes at cell division and became mixed in definite proportions through the cellular processes of sexual reproduction.

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He didn’t use the word ‘gene’ but he did recognize that some kinds of particulate recombination took place during fertilisation. The article was published in 1866 by the Natural History Society of Brno in their Proceedings and if anyone did read it they didn’t understand its importance. It stayed hidden-away until 1900 and arguably its significance was not clear until much later still.

Trying to understanding evolution from different perspectives produced more measurements to add to the still ambiguous qualitative evidence. In 1864 the great physicist William Thomson (1824-1907) had estimated the time taken for molten rock to cool to earthly levels. Although he was a devout creationist, Thomson agreed with Lyell’s suggestions that geological changes were gradual and that “this earth, certainly a moderate number of millions of years ago, was a red-hot globe.” His first calculations for the cooling of sufficient rock to form the planet was between 20 and 400 million years, not long enough for Darwin, but large numbers to challenge Victorian dogma.

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Thomson used to quote Alexander Pope’s 1734 poem Essay on Man:

Go, wondrous creature! Mount where Science guides;

Go measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;

Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,

Correct old Time, and regulate the sun.

For the first edition of the Origin Darwin had used a value for the rate of erosion of chalk cliffs to determine that the Sussex Weald had taken 300 million years to erode to its present form. All Darwin wanted was enough time for gradual evolution, long enough to explain the occurrence of extinct groups, such as ammonites and dinosaurs, in slightly older sediments underlying the chalk. But his line of reasoning had little validity and was immediately scorned by geologists and geographers let alone physicists such as Thomson. The latter’s very different kind of mathematics had an objectivity that was highly respected even though most scientists didn’t understand the calculations, and it suggested there had been a mere 100 million years since the planet’s origin. That allowed much less time for the Weald to have eroded.

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Darwin was forced to revise his estimate of deep time and for the fifth edition of the Origin he offered compromises to speed up his initial estimates of evolutionary progress. In desperation he asked his son George, by then a mathematician at Cambridge and a colleague of Thomson, to help check the calculations. He also offered factors such as the planetary tilt and climate change that needed to be considered in further estimates of time. Impressive though all this objective Baconian science may have been, it was becoming clear that it was not going to come up very quickly with a clear answer for the age of the earth. The speculation about slow or sudden rates of evolution continued.

Thomson also revised these numbers until 1897 when he settled on 20-40 million years for the erosion of the Weald, times quite out of scale to the values required by the geologists and palaeontologists who followed Darwin. But to add more confusion for them, Thomson had been involved with calculations about heat flow, working towards the second law of thermodynamics. It meant that the planet’s geology was becoming less ordered and so Lyell’s uniformity was impossible. It was the law that remained constant, not the planet and Thomson accused Lyell of seeing them both as the same. The theory meant there was a faster break-up of order at the beginning of the earth’s existence than now and with these different rates of change the processes involved couldn’t all have been the same as Lyell advocated.

Then, in 1903, Ernest Rutherford discovered the source of heat in Thomson’s theory and in 1907 it enabled radiometric dating of rocks to give a much more reliable estimate of geological time. While Mendel’s followers measured genetic variation by counting the ratios of colouring of pea flowers, the physicists searched for other parts of biology which they could usefully measure..

They were to stimulate a third kind of objective analysis of evolutionary data from the eccentric and enquiring mind of Francis Galton. He was 13 years younger than his cousin Charles Darwin and though they were never very close they were sportingly competitive. In 1841, the first year of Emma and Charles’ marriage, the 19 year old Francis was invited to their little house in Gower Street. The talk of exploration in South America and Australasia must have had an impact because Francis himself soon went off to Africa and stayed in Namibia until 1852. Instead of continuing with his medical studies at King’s College Hospital, Francis was persuaded to go up to Cambridge and study mathematics. So began the new ways of analysing and understanding morphological and genetical data which brought the cousins together thirty years later.

One of Galton’s early contributions to this new approach was in 1865 when the influential Macmillan’s Magazine publicized some of the results of his data-gathering under the headline “Hereditary Talent and Characters”. The article was typical of his eccentric approach and reported the serious search for physical and mental characters which were inherited in “animals and therefore man”, all having been subject to selection. They were the “many obvious cases of heredity among the Cambridge men who were at the University about my own time.” The work went on to find simpler things to measure in many more subjects, so Galton got the measurement of a million men’s height, then the exam results of 5,738 Scottish soldiers. Each time he plotted the range of measurements and found the same normal distribution shaped as a bell curve.

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In 1869 Galton set out alone to publish his objective hopes and desires about how characters might be inherited. In Hereditary Genius he argued that “man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance” and “out of two varieties of any race of animal who are equally endowed in other respects, the most intelligent variety is sure to prevail in the battle of life.” Galton used a 16 point scale to monitor human intelligence with a negro two levels below an Englishman, a Lowland Scot just above him and an ancient Athenian at the top.

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He placed composite photographs of criminals and other “degenerate types” at the different levels on the scale to suggest pathways of inheritance. The difficulty was to get hold of enough data for use in any equations, one of the reasons why he was involved in so many things at once: fingerprints, weather forecasting, inheritance, and especially human evolution. Another reason was his irascible and eccentric interest in experimenting. Like many of his contemporaries he worked alone with little money to invest in research. Even if he had had the resources he didn’t know the questions to ask, or have any expertise in the right experimental methods. He was stuck in-limbo with no-one to set his wits against and argue with, no way of testing his ideas with experiments.

One person who did accept his challenge was his cousin Charles Darwin and through the 1860s they planned experiments crossing silver-grey rabbits after giving blood transfusions from another breed of black rabbits. They then crossed these males and females to find what other characters their offspring inherited. In 1869 they were breeding ‘a few couples of rabbits of marked and assured breeds”. If particles of inheritance were really in the blood as Darwin thought, then some features from the black rabbit’s donors should show up in the subsequent offspring. They then set about counting the offspring and looked for non-existent patterns, realizing how difficult it was to focus on a single variant at a time.

Well-aware of these deficiencies Galton persisted with his measurements, hoping to obtain data about animals as well as human features and habits and to use his mathematical skills to analyse them. But his simple methods just couldn’t begin to scratch the surface of the difficult things that he chose to study, such as the inheritance of intelligence. One of the projects tracked the number of generations in active legal families: “after three successive dilutions of blood the descendants of judges appear incapable of rising to eminence.” His main conclusion was that what this succession for lawyers really needed was a mix of “capacity, zeal and vigour”.

As the study of biology grew, so it acquired more practitioners, and these specialists became professionals as biological industries began in agriculture and health, and biology became a necessary part of education and university research. Switzerland attracted a more diverse gathering of the new biologists than most countries due to its central location in a politically unsettled Europe with many migrants, and they came from varied social backgrounds. Details of the range of interests being studied were given by Alphonse de Condolle, a Swiss botanist who had been stimulated to make the catalogue by reading Galton’s 1869 Hereditary Geniusth-11

But the Swiss data suggested to de Candolle that environmental factors played a big part. Galton’s book was about heredity, de Condolle’s Histoire des Sciences et des Savants depuis Deux Siecles about environment. Largely from their correspondence came Galton’s little book in 1874: English Men of Science: their Nature and Nurture, quoting Prospero in The Tempest “A devil, a born Devil, on whose nature nuture can never stick.”

41 The Great Depression 1930-1940

  By the time of the 1929 Cape Town meeting of the British Association Julian Huxley was working well with HG Wells and his son Gip. All three were as surprised at the goings-on at the British Association meeting as most others back in Britain. They were as determined as ever to keep open the pluralist approach that Tansley had been advocating, to be considered in conjunction with the new genetics without being drawn into the politics of eugenics. Then Huxley got the job of Secretary to the Zoological Society of London, running the zoological gardens in Regent’s Park and at Whipsnade Park. This was a controversial appointment, for the zoo had been run along very conservative lines where the Fellows retained a lot of power on how the place was run. Huxley quickly introduced charges for members’ guests and fought hard for it to open to the public on Sundays. Young people were encouraged for the first time with a new children’s zoo and the backroom research flourished. It was an exciting place to be in that lull before the war. event_image1.php     th-1

The zoo canteen even became well-known to a small group for its exceptional English cooking. With the help of a professional chef called Philip Harben the Half Hundred Dining Club often met there for such rare delicacies as bison’s heart and silverside of antelope. These dishes were only available at culling times and members sometimes complained that there were “not enough middle-sized snakes” to produce the soup they wanted. Meanwhile, alone in his study on many dark nights that led up to the London blitz, Julian Huxley embarked on a serious project similar to what he had done so well before with The Science of Life. From a confusing disarray of knowledge, he had the skill to bring together a new case for understanding how evolution worked. Unknown to anyone at the time including himself, this work was to become one of the great climaxes of twentieth century science. Not only did it cover variation and natural selection but every topic bearing on the subject, from the biochemical basis of heredity to the evolution of consciousness, the effects of human cultural development and the problem of defining evolutionary progress. Some say it was also the last, and the lost, opportunity to save our planet from the environmental catastrophe that was soon to get underway.

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Bernal, Zuckerman and Needham all served as science advisors during the war, and Bernal was particularly busy as advisor to Mountbatten. He tested several extreme proposals for landing aircraft and tanks in difficult places. One involved mixing wood chips on icebergs to make them into strong and transportable landing strips; another tested the strength of beaches with only thin coverings of sand over peat and salt-marsh, and their advice helped decide the location of the D-Day landings in Normandy. This was when Huxley and Haldane often took part in the popular war-time radio show The Brains Trust, together with others such as Gilbert Clark, Robert Boothby, Malcom Sargent, Arthur Bliss, William Beveridge and Jacob Bronowski.

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Huxley remembered one question that completely stumped them. “It came from a young girl, who asked how a fly managed to land upside-down on the ceiling. The answer was provided much later by high-speed cinematography – the fly does not reverse and turn a back-somersault, but executes a sideways roll.” Such challenging broadcasts cheered-up millions of other dark nights during the black-out. Bernard Shaw, still campaigning against Darwin’s ideas, forty years after that back-stage party for Jekyll and Hyde and sent Huxley a post card in May 1942: “I listened in on Tuesday and thought you got mixed up between evolution and education. Education goes on for a lifetime: but the evolution of perhaps thousands of years is recapitulated and compressed into as many minutes by the foetus. ….  Biology is in a bad way. The Laboratory mind is more degenerative than malaria. The descent from Huxley, Darwin and Spencer – broken by Butler, Bergson and Back to Methuselah – to the simpleton Pavlov is a precipitous degringolade (Mrs Huxley will translate).”

After another broadcast later that year Shaw wrote to the editor of The Listener: “My friend Dr Huxley, in his broadcast on Charles Darwin, dismissed me from consideration as a biologist on the ground that I am “emotional”, offering as a sample a passage from one of my prefaces, which was recited by the actor who impersonated me in such a manner as to make it sound like the raving of a sentimental drunkard. “I am not the author of this passage. It is a quotation from the Canticle in the order for Morning Prayer entitled Benedicte, Omnia Opera. Dr Huxley is unacquainted with the Book of Common Prayer, having been brought up as a Natural Selectionist; but I shall be happy to lend him my copy if he desired to verify the quotation. “P.S. Darwin did not exclude the emotions from the biological field. He wrote a whole book about them which I read before Dr Huxley was born.”

Shaw held on as one of the last supporters of Lamarckian vitalism and always hit out at people like Huxley who he labelled as “materialists” believing in natural selection. While he was living this eclectic life-style, Huxley was busy thinking about how he would make as big a mark on the world of biology as his grandfather. With his experience of the experimental genetics that was still growing in the United States and parts of Europe, with his knowledge of systematic zoology and ornithology in particular, and with his unusual outlook on life, he was well-placed to do something big. He began in his Presidential Address to the zoologists at the 1936 meeting of the British Association, and called for the re-unification of all biology around Darwin’s theory of evolution. Enough was known then about mutation, recombination and selection to bury non-Darwinian theories.

Bateson had died in 1926 without resolving the mystery about mutation and Fisher’s group hadn’t made any break-through either. The time was ripe to build some new way out of this stalemate. Huxley did well to publicise the way natural selection works, with radio talks, lectures and books. He used two principles to get his main ideas across: that natural selection works through reproduction and mutation, and that with time it gives improved systems in nature. These were loaded expressions: reproduction involved the self-copying of genes, improvement was such a subjective notion yet concerned adaptation to change. Just as water changes from liquid to gas at a critical point, and other chemicals change their molecular organisation at different points, so, Huxley argued, organisms change their species at their own kind of critical point, making new species into real new entities. In contrast, he saw genera as strings of species descended from ancestors, products of history rather than something with their own dynamic, and he realised it was the environment that changed the critical point through geological time.

Another important feature that he emphasised was stability, the time between these changes of the critical points, the “persistence of types” and known now as “punctuated equilibria”. Then Huxley had a bit of timely good luck, an unexpected boost to these ways of uniting all the evolutionary evidence and it came from an unexpected source. He realised that if he was to bring a lot of different specialists together he needed a strong link between experimental biologists and the more classical taxonomists at museums, zoos and botanical gardens, so it was timely that the taxonomists were setting themselves up with a new society in May 1937. It was auspiciously named the Association for the Study of Systematics in Relation to General Biology and Huxley was invited to edit its first publication, The New Systematics. This gathered together state-of-the-art reviews from nearly every field of biology and set the scene for Huxley to take a strong lead in bringing all the players together.


One of these infant disciplines which had enormous importance in understanding evolution was cellular biochemistry. Hans Krebs (1900-1981) had been barred from his work in medicine at Hamburg in 1933 and settled in Sheffield in 1937. That was also when he determined the ten or more intermediates of the citric acid cycle that played a central part in the metabolism of all animals and plants that breathe oxygen for aerobic respiration. He discovered how this links to all of photosynthesis, fat metabolism, amino acid and protein chemistry, carbohydrate storage and nucleic acid chemistry. Krebs’ discovery of this single and universal pathway for respiration was of central importance to how species are related, but it was rarely realised and acknowledged outside his field. These biochemical reactions were important to keep cells working together and also occurred universally in all species, with only few refinements and exceptions. It was striking how most animal and plant cells all used these basic reactions to obtain, store and use energy, and that the bits inside cells such as chromosomes, nuclei, mitochondria and chloroplasts followed the same structural and chemical formats. It was also realised in the 1930s that most living cells have this same kind of modular architecture, essential if they are all related to one-another through the same tree of common ancestry.